It’s Budget Time!

Dr. Malcolm Cross

The budget season is here.  The Stephenville city council is having its first budget workshop on Tuesday, July 16.  Everyone concerned with taxes and spending should attend it as well as subsequent workshops and city council meetings devoted to public finance.

One of our city government’s good features is its accessibility to the general public.  Anyone can not only attend council meetings and workshops, but participate in the relevant discussions as well.  Of course, offering one’s ideas doesn’t guarantee those ideas will be accepted, but at least they won’t be ignored.

So how can someone who’s not a member of the city council best contribute to the deliberations which will ultimately lead to the budget and tax rate for the next fiscal year?  

First, one should start attending, and contributing one’s thoughts, early and often.  In theory, one can attend and speak at any meeting during the budget deliberations, but the sooner one starts attending, the better, for two reasons:  First, the more meetings one attends, the more one will learn, and hence be better informed.  Second, while ideas and proposals for changes in the budget can be offered even at the final deliberations before the budget is adopted, many council members (at least while I was on the council) are more skeptical of last-minute suggestions; they may wonder why those who propose last-minute changes are waiting until the final meeting to spring them on the council, rather than offer them in the course of earlier discussions on the matter.

Second, all participants should understand that state law, rightly, requires that cities (and presumably other local governments in Texas), are required to balance their budgets, and have only finite and limited resources to work with.  This requirement does not exist at the federal level—the U. S. Constitution does not require a balanced budget, or any budget at all for that matter—which, together with the public’s unrelenting demands for more spending and lower taxes, explains why the federal government runs trillion-dollar deficits and has a 22-trillion dollar national debt.  But at the local level, to demand lower taxes implies a demand for less spending, while a demand for more spending in a given area may imply a demand for either a tax hike or a cut in spending elsewhere.  All demands made on the city council will be considered, but not all can be met.  Only those that can be met within the framework of a balanced budget which limits both taxes and expenditures stand a chance of being adopted.

Third, while the city council takes seriously every demand for more spending or less spending, for lower taxes or higher taxes, the demands the council takes most seriously are those which are reasonable, specific, and made by those cognizant of the need to maintain fiscal discipline, i. e., to ensure that revenues and expenditures be in balance.  A demand to “cut taxes” will probably carry less weight than a demand to cut taxes and match tax cuts with specific spending cuts as well.

Fourth, everyone who contributes ideas, recommendations, and demands should recognize that while the city council will take everything seriously, it will take most seriously those comments made reasonably and with the most support of relevant facts and figures.  Passion is not to be ignored, but input offered with emotion or hysteria—it sometimes happens—will carry far less weight by those who believe decisions should be based on facts and logic, without considering who has the loudest set of lungs and vocal chords.

Fifth, all participants should recognize the main reason why public opinion plays only a very limited role in decision making:  It is simply impossible to determine what the public really wants, since the government currently lacks the means of adequately measuring public opinion.  This is not to say that it’s impossible to measure public opinion at all, nor should public opinion be totally ignored.  My opposition to the Proctor Pipeline in 2004 was based on the overwhelming rejection of a 2000 bond issue to finance it, even though I thought the best demographic and engineering data at the time made adoption of the Pipeline the more reasonable choice.  But only in those rare circumstances when public opinion can be measured with some degree of reliability—in this instance in a free election in which 87% of the voters expressed a clear preference to reject the pipeline—should public opinion be determinative.  Otherwise, the city council must, and probably will, ignore public opinion simply because it cannot really determine what the general public wants, given the absence of data from elections or reliable polling.  Of course, if city council members make decisions unpopular with the public, the public can remove them from office, either through the regularly scheduled city elections, or the newly adopted recall process.

Finally, it should be understood that those who fail, for whatever reason, to participate in the budget process are not necessarily bad citizens.  Nor do they forfeit their right to criticize the city council’s decisions after they’re made.  But while participation does not guarantee success, failure to participate does forfeit any possibility of having an impact.  

So, to all interested in city finance:  Go for it.  Get involved.  Participate.  You have nothing to lose.  And who knows what you may gain in the process?

Malcolm L. Cross has lived in Stephenville and taught politics and government at Tarleton since 1987. His political and civic activities include service on the Stephenville City Council (2000-2014) and on the Erath County Republican Executive Committee (1990 to the present).  He was Mayor Pro Tem of Stephenville from 2008 to 2014.  He is a member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and the Stephenville Rotary Club, and does volunteer work for the Boy Scouts of America. Views expressed in this column are his and do not reflect those of The Flash as a whole.

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